“Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love!”
I find this quotation from Mother Teresa highly inspiring. She is a great example for me because of the way she knew how to do her work in the most difficult circumstances. Many of us are now also confronted with difficult working conditions in this corona time, but most of the time these – fortunately – don’t even come close to the situations in which Mother Teresa performed her work.
My name is Annemie Vanermen. I grew up as the second child in a family of six children and just turned 28. My parents converted to the Catholic faith when I was two years old. So for as long as I can remember, I have been going to Mass. I studied nursing in Leuven at the Katholieke Hogeschool, with an additional year of specialization in ‘emergency and intensive care’.
Afterwards I was quite tired of school and went abroad for a year to do volunteer work. I left for the Holy Land and ended up in Ein Karem, a small village close to Jerusalem, in a beautiful home for children and young people with severe physical and mental disabilities. During that year I lost my heart to this place, and since then I go back regularly to visit the children and travel the country.
Following my year abroad, I returned to ‘normal’ life: I worked in a geriatric ward for five months, then in an emergency ward for a year and a half,and now, for a little over a year, in an intensive care unit. As for most people in Belgium, for me too the corona crisis came very suddenly. In the middle of February I was on a trip to Jerusalem with some friends: corona occasionally came up in discussion, but no one even imagined that shortly afterwards an almost complete lockdown would follow!
On a professional level, everything happened very quickly. Our first corona patients arrived on 17 March, with half of our intensive care unit quarantined. Barely a few days later, the entire shift was transformed into a ‘corona intensive care unit’: this means wearing protective gear from the beginning to the end of your shift, with one break. The progression of the patients’ illness is frightening. Patients who are able sit up in their chairs in the morning and whose health does not seem so bad yet, suddenly have to be put on a ventilator in the afternoon, with all the possible side-effects, fighting for their lives.
Working in protective gear is a challenge. I myself get cold rather quickly, so an extra gown doesn’t bother me; but I do find the face mask and gloves bothersome. The face mask presses painfully against your nose, cuts into your throat,and makes breathing difficult. Anyone who has ever tried to work with gloves on for a while understands that constantly wearing two pairs of plastic gloves is quite irritating. And then there’s that feeling of coming out of a swimming pool that they give you when you can finally take them off after four to six hours (exceptionally even eight hours).
For the patients, of course, this disease is also extremely difficult, because they often go through the most frightening moments of their lives. Not being able to breathe is terrifying. When people have to go through this without family, and only surrounded by people who look like they have just stepped out of a spaceship, they feel very much alone. Watching people die without family is always very sad, but knowing that it would have been different in normal circumstances makes it even sadder. We try to give people the opportunity to keep in touch through videocall. For some people this is comforting, but of course it’s not at all the same as sitting next to your loved one, holding a hand, giving a kiss. In this whole situation one tries to keep patients from losing courage.
The hospital where I work acted swiftly and professionally, so that the emergency situation was handled as well as possible with all available means. In no time there were extra changing rooms as well as a sterilized and contaminated transit area, washbasins were placed where needed, special shoes were purchased for the infected units, staff from closed units were deployed in corona units, refresher courses were given on the new procedures, …
All in all, everyone is doing their best: we receive extra food from local restaurants, cards and drawings, pralines and chocolate Easter eggs,… It sometimes weighs heavily on me, but I am moved by the way everyone in society is trying to do their bit. Also the spontaneous neighborhood initiatives like hanging bed sheets outside of windows and the daily applause touches my heart.
In these days of mandatory stay-at-home restrictions, everyone experiences certain things as extra difficult to let go of. For me, that’s parish life. In normal times I’m very active in Sint-Kwinten’s. We have a thriving, young, international faith community that gathers for coffee/tea and fellowship in the Sint-Kwintenshuis every Sunday after our Eucharistic celebration. I am co-responsible for community building and diakonia. It is my task to organize social gatherings and outreach. I am also a member of Sint-Kwinten’s gemeenschapsploeg (community team) and the zoneraad (zone council) of the pastoral zone ‘Leuven aan de Dijle’.
It affects me very much that we cannot meet on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist together and form community. The Easter Vigil, which I look forward to every year, was celebrated this year from a seat at home. It was deeply moving. The light of the Easter candle in a dark church is such a strong moment for me. In the end we were able to livestream the entire Easter Triduum from Sint-Kwinten’s Church. I found that very special and am happy it was possible.
This corona-period brings with it not only feelings of loss but also some positive elements. Together with the music team of Nightfever Leuven, in which I’m active, we made an online video in which everyone sang or played their instrument at home. It turned out to be a beautiful whole! Another advantage of this period is that, via the internet,you can join many different faith communities celebrating the Eucharist or praying their daily prayers. I regularly tune in to the livestream of the Tibériade community. There is so much on offer on the internet that I don’t feel truly lonely. I also found it special to spend a large part of Lent in this ‘loneliness’. I don’t think I ever had so much time to prepare for Easter.
There is much to pray for! For all those who are lonely and not allowed to receive visitors, especially the elderly, who often don’t understand what is happening, or the children and young people in Ein Karem (and all over the world), who also have to cope without their families. For those who are poor and do not have enough resources to stay at home for a long time. For those who die alone. For those who continue to work and give the best of themselves,….
I find Psalm 91 a very comforting psalm. Verse 4 reads:
“He will shelter you with his pinions, and under his wings you may take refuge; his faithfulness is a protecting shield.”
I thank the Lord for the peace that I can regain during this moment when, in my hurried life, the pause button has been (forcibly) pressed for a moment.